SALT LAKE CITY — Disney princesses sometimes get a bad rap.
According to a recent Brigham Young University study, scholars have criticized Disney princess movies over the years — the common storyline of a passive princess needing a handsome prince to swoop in and save her, marriage often being the culminating event in the film, and other unrealistic and unhealthy expectations regarding gender, beauty and romance.
Bold characters in the Disney Princess franchise like Mulan, Merida and Moana have helped to improve this reputation. But with Disney princess merchandise reaching $5.5 billion in 2015, the high consumption of the princesses has led experts to wonder about the negative influence these characters may be having on young girls and their self-esteem.
But rarely do the researchers consult directly with the girls themselves.
That’s what the new BYU study wanted to fix.
“We started looking at the literature that was out there on the Disney princesses, and it was all pretty much critical analysis,” said Tom Robinson, a BYU School of Communications professor who helmed the recent study. “But there was no real data to show how young girls felt about the Disney princesses. … It’s more what adults think is going on and how young girls are being affected by it.”
According to Robinson, such research assumes young girls are consuming the movies at face value. But the recent study shows that preadolescent girls (ages 8-12) are taking away lessons of empowerment, and recognizing the positive attributes and actions of the princesses.
Rather than looking at the content of the films, Robinson and his fellow researchers conducted a Q-Methodology study with 31 girls, examining their attitudes, opinions and beliefs regarding the Disney princesses and why they are drawn to them.
The study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Children and Media, revealed four reasons Disney princesses are so popular — a trend that will likely increase with the live-action “Mulan” now out on Disney Plus.
Here’s a breakdown of what they discovered.
For some girls, the love of princesses had more to do with inner beauty — personality traits like kindness, courage and having a sense of adventure. Robinson’s team labeled this group the “Virtuous.”
According to these participants, princesses were appealing because of their persistence and bravery — even in the face of adversity. For these girls, statements regarding outward appearance ranked low.
“Some of them don’t even care that they’re princesses. ... They’re normal people and they fight for their freedom,” a 10-year-old participant told researchers during the study, which was given to the Deseret News. “They don’t care that they’re beautiful or not, they are who they are, and they’re OK with that. They don’t want to change anything about themselves.”
Girls in this category, Robinson said, seemed to understand that physical appearance does not equate with ability.
“These girls really looked a lot deeper into the princesses than what we thought they did,” Robinson said. “They looked at who the princesses are on the inside, and how they related to other people.”
Some girls were predominantly fascinated by the princesses’ royal lifestyle — the outward beauty, gowns and crowns. Labeled the “Royalists,” this category didn’t come as a surprise to Robinson, who said it best reflects the critical scholarship surrounding Disney princesses. It also reflects a similar phenomenon in adults who are drawn to real-life royalty like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
But the professor added that this group does not represent the entire fanbase, and that even though the primary focus is on luxury and outward beauty, that doesn’t mean the girls don’t recognize other qualities.
“I try to be kind to everyone,” a 9-year-old “Royalist” in this study told the researchers. “And sometimes I want to dress up fancy and sometimes I beg my mom to buy me high heels, pretty dresses, and makeup. And I try to pretend that I’m going on adventures in my house, and outside in the park and stuff, and the playground, and mostly everywhere I go, I try to be like princesses.”
For these girls, Robinson said, the next best thing to meeting a princess is dressing and acting like one.
This is the group that surprised Robinson the most.
Like the “Royalists,” girls in the “Dreamers” category also admired the princess lifestyle, but for a much different reason.
Girls in this group, Robinson said, watched the Disney princess movies as an escape from their lives. The “Dreamers” ranked highly the statement, “Watching Disney princess movies makes me forget about the bad things in my life.”
Statements about romance were also important to these participants, indicating that they craved and recognized the importance of loving relationships in their own lives.
“They saw the lives of the princesses as a life that they would like to have, to be able to get out of their current circumstances,” Robinson said. “Some of the girls had talked about the fact they were bullied. So we kind of feel like there’s that part going on either at home or at school, and they kind of escaped into this world of the princesses.”
One 10-year-old “dreamer” told the researchers: “They have a lot in common with me, like how there’s one princess (Anna), her sister would ignore her, and sometimes I get bullied at school, and it makes me learn about myself and how much I have in common with princesses. They inspire me. I want to go on a lot of adventures like them … see where the world takes me, and where my future takes me.”
The final group represented fans who are drawn to Disney princesses such as Mulan, Moana and Merida, Robinson said. Labeled the “Grrrls,” these participants admired the confidence and strength of such bold characters — like when they disobey their parents to do what they believe is right.
Focused on empowerment, the “Grrrls” were more interested in what the princesses do rather than who they are. They liked to see the princesses fight their own battles and succeed, Robinson said. These girls had strong optimism and a belief in their potential.
“Standing up for yourself or someone else is really nice, and I had to stand up for myself at school when my friends weren’t being really nice to me,” a 10-year-old “Grrrl” told the researchers. “It made me feel really good, so I like when the princesses do it, too.”
Happily ever after
Overall, Robinson said this study found that there is a wide gap between what research says about the influence of Disney princesses and the actual reasons these characters are so popular among young girls.
Rather than taking the movies at face value, young girls are finding comfort, seeing examples of kindness, love, strength and courage, and learning they can work hard to overcome struggles and have a happy ending.
“I think that the data is interesting, and I really think it stands on its own,” Robinson said. “And I really like the idea that it comes in from the young girls’ perspective.”
Note: Other researchers on the study include BYU professors Scott Haden Church and Clark Callahan, and BYU graduate students Mckenzie Madsen and Lucia Pollock.